Try Heirloom Seeds for Cultivated Carrots

Wild carrots didn’t have as much carotene as today’s orange carrots; heirloom seeds produce white, yellow and purple varieties.

| September/October 2013

  • Purple-colored cultivated carrots were relatively common in the 1600s.
    Photo By iStockphoto/NightAndDayImage
  • Red Core Chantenay is readily available for gardeners.
    Photo Courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
  • Landrace varieties of carrots, found in Afghanistan, are usually red, yellow and purple. The typical orange carrot was a mutation, allowing the accumulation of more carotene in the veggie.
    Photo By iStockphoto/esemelwe

Deep in the high, green valleys of western and central Asia, and surrounded by snow-capped peaks, you will find the carrot’s area of origin. This region is known as the Iranian plateau, a variable and often rugged topography stretching from northern Iran to Pakistan.

The carrot (Daucus carota) is a member of the umbel family, otherwise known as the Apiaceae, or Umbelliferae, family. The name “umbel” comes from the flower heads, with the stalks being properly known as pedicels, which originate from a common point and spread out like an umbrella. The name appears to derive from the Latin, umbrella, or a parasol, which itself comes from umbra or umbraticus, meaning shade or shadow.

Carrots are considered biennials, and while the cultivated types we grow are true biennials, blooming the second year after a cold period, some of the more primitive carrots, such as landraces from Afghanistan, have a percentage of plants that bloom the first year.

Apiaceae is a large plant family yielding many vegetables and seasonings, along with some of the most deadly poisons. Carrots and parsnips are the well-known roots in this family, along with the vegetables celery and Florence fennel, and herbs and spices such as parsley, dill, fennel, lovage, cumin, coriander, chervil, caraway, anise and asafoetida. The fruits of this family are known as schizocarps, each of which splits upon maturity into two mericarps. The mericarps are what we sow as seeds.

Many of the seeds of this family, as well as the leaves, are aromatic and contain essential oils. Poisonous relatives of this family include poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and water hemlock (Cicuta spp.), whose toxicity is comparable to arsenic while an eighth as lethal as cyanide. A number of umbel plants, including some forms of wild carrot, contain coumarin, an important anticoagulant medicine also used as a rodenticide.

History of carrot domestication

While the botanical origin of the carrot seems fairly clear, its history of domestication and introduction of various colors are more controversial due to a lack of clear documentation and genetic information.



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